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An interview with Luther Carpenter on U.S. team's Tokyo 2021 Olympics preparations

by David Schmidt 3 Nov 2020 08:45 PST November 3, 2020
Luther Carpenter is US Sailing's Olympic head coach © Sharon Green/ Ultimate Sailing

2020 has been a tough year all around, but Olympic athletes and aspiring Olympic athletes have had a particularly hard go given the still-raging coronavirus pandemic. For starters, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are now the Tokyo 2021 Olympics, a change of a single whole number in the moniker that has far-reaching implications for athletes who have spent years sharpening their competitive blades and timing their peak performances to coincide with a particular two-week window in time.

For sure, sailors have this a bit easier than, say, gymnasts whose competitive careers age-out way sooner, but a lost year is still a lost year. And, for aspiring Olympic sailors, 2020 didn't exactly present a lot of opportunities to move the needle towards the Paris 2024 Olympics.

Also, it's important to note that even among American sailors who planned to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the pandemic's blade didn't cut evenly. The USA qualified for nine out of ten Olympic sailing events for the 2021 Games (we missed out on a country berth in the 49er class, however we are first in line to send a team if a qualified country forfeits their spot on the starting line). Of these nine qualified classes, individual U.S. sailors and teams have already completed their Olympic Trials and have earned berths in all but the Women's 470 class.

This later bit is interesting. On the one hand, athletes who have already earned their berths know that there's a plane ticket waiting for them come July. But for the four teams vying to represent the USA in the Women's 470 class, their Olympic Trials won't end until the 2021 470 Worlds (March 5-13). This raises important questions: Is the hill steeper for aspiring American Women's 470 sailors, or will their still-ongoing trials period help to keep their blades especially sharp come late July and August of 2021?

I checked in with Luther Carpenter, US Sailing's Olympic head coach, via a phone call, to learn more about the US Sailing Team's preparations for the Tokyo 2021 Olympics.

Clouds sometimes have silver linings—has the US Sailing team found any unexpected benefits from having extra time to prepare for the now-2021 Tokyo Olympics? If so, what are these?

Absolutely. As head coach and a class coach, one major goal we are working on for this quad is accurately determining each sailor's strengths and weaknesses. Normally, finding the opportunity and proper amount of time to focus on those weaknesses can be tough. You're loading up the trailer after Palma, a week before Hyeres, and this doesn't leave a lot of time to work on specific techniques.

The silver lining is getting that time as we got back into our boats in remote locations. For example, with the Finns, Luke Muller and Eric Anderson were skeptical at first that we could accomplish a lot by ourselves, but, for me, it was my dream scenario. As we rolled up our sleeves and got to work, Luke and Eric immediately gained clarity on the gains, and transformed into accurate goal setters. This teamwide process and confidence has changed our athletes, and transformed them into more efficient sailors.

Who's got a harder road to a possible medal ceremony—the sailors who already qualified for Tokyo or the Women's 470 contenders?

The 470 women have a hard road because they had to reset the length of their campaign during a very challenging time period. It's hard to plan more than six weeks ahead, and [it's] tough to raise the needed funds to train another 16 months.

However, we know that all three Women's 470 boat's/teams are very talented, and we're just on the cusp of a really focused effort that will surely reap great improvement. The Olympic endeavor is one of setting goals that enable you to "be the best you can be", and I know that this Women's 470 trio will be able to realize that with the extra year of hard work.

Yes, only one team wins the trials and becomes the Olympian, but as we approach the end of Women's 470 Class in the Olympics, I hope that all of these talented women can reflect on the peak of successful campaigns. It has been impressive watching them sail as hard as they have, even within the restrictions of the Covid-19 environment. And of course, whoever does emerge as the Olympian will be stronger from the competitive race to get there.

Are you worried that the sailors who have already qualified could because rusty? We saw this after the 2011 ISAF Worlds in Perth, where U.S.-flagged sailors dominated, only to fall apart at the London 2012 Olympics.

There are still some of us around the team who were at Perth, and we're reminding the 2021 team what happened. We had some impressive results in Perth, but afterward there was some resting on laurels. We really missed the chance to excel another level or two in the last seven months leading into London. That's a huge lesson for the 2020/2021 quadrennial.

Some of the 2012 Olympic athletes were young, they thought they had the winning formula, and they weren't focused enough on learning ahead of the 2012 Games.

I like to say that we won't stop learning until after the last race of the Tokyo Games.

Do you think that European sailors will have an advantage at the Tokyo 2021 Games because they were able to compete at European regattas this summer while our sailors were travel-restricted?

For the first three months of the lockdown, everyone was under the same restrictions. We felt that no one was as efficient [with their training] as us, but maybe a few countries could match us.

In early June, five of our athletes got to go to Italy, available through invitations from the Italian team, and coordination with our U.S. diplomats. It was a needed "truth" or test for the sailors—a chance to make sure their hard work was paying off.

In the Olympic world we are shooting for the highest bar possible and happily do the work. But you need an influx of assurance that you are going down the right path, and you thirst for confirmation. That confirmation is key, as it opens yet another door to the next set of goals.

Those sailors that got the chance to race, delivered great results, and was very encouraging-not only for those in Europe, but reassuring for the rest of our team at home. It showed that what we're doing to prepare for Tokyo at home is working just fine, [and] hopefully the rest of the team will get their chance to confirm their hard work in the near future.

What data points are you looking at for the team ahead of the 2021 Games?

When we were under lockdown, we spent an incredible amount of time studying the GPS trackers from the big regattas of the quadrennial, looking at the boat speeds of the best sailors in the world. We studied the data from the Enoshima test event with a fine-tooth comb.

For example, we looked at the helicopter views and realized that Luke Muller needed to improve on his lane selection. It was powerful being able to see that, and other essentials that needed to be fixed.

How important will the 2021 Florida OCR Series be for U.S. sailors?

It will be great to sail an official regatta. Some classes this year had a light turnout, for example the Finns. But winning regattas is winning regattas. One thing that we worked on in January—and that we'll continue to work on for next January—is being comfortable managing the fleet and knowing what percentages to play when you're in the lead.

International competition at [the 2021 Florida OCR Series] will potentially be light. We realize that and know [that] we're a risky country in terms of exposure to Covid-19.

But we want to get out and sail in regattas with official race committees with official marks and try our new techniques. This will help us prepare for a solid spring season, hopefully at regattas in Europe.

Anything else that you'd like to add, for the record?

At the end of the day, we know what wins races—starting, boatspeed, fleet position and downwind technique.

I haven't been to Europe since March, but I can see from Facebook posts that most countries have the same mentality during their work at home.

You mentioned Perth in 2011—our team could have done better by working on the skills and techniques that we could have improved on. My job is to keep the clarity straight and on everyone's plate preparing for the day when we can get back to normal racing. The athletes now see that they can streamline and adapt their focus points and accomplish so much without the world's best sailors around them in a fleet environment.

They know that the confidence built through solid training will deliver a winning performance. When they come off the starting line next July in Enoshima, they will focus on what they know and have proven to be successful—tuning, hiking, steering, and trimming is what we do. It's not rocket science, it's putting the focus and time in, and placing yourself on the starting line to race against the best.

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